Friday, May 20, 2016

A Review – The Scorpio Races

And now it’s time for review time with me.
You’re welcome.

I just read a book called “The Scorpio Races”, and I figured I may as well spread the word:
You need to read this book.

The Idea

The Scorpio Races is a book from back in 2011, written by Maggie Stiefvater. She’s also known for Shiver and – most recently – the Raven Boys Cycle.
I heard of her – and this book in particular – from a good friend, and decided to give it a read.

Well. That was fast.

(Found at Maggie's Website)

Rather than sum up the book in my own words (ew), I’ll just give you the text that’s in the dust jacket:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Sounds kind of… odd. At first glance, it doesn’t sound like my kind of book. It’s very character-based (AKA not my type), and the plot is a series of Man Who Learned Better experiences.

So basically there are these “water horses”. The capaill uisce (CAP-ple ISH-ka). They’re based off of half a dozen different legends, which you can learn all about if you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and they live in the sea.
And not.

Basically, there’s this island where they have this custom: every year, they host a race. People from all over the world come to watch the horses race.
The water horses. The carnivorous beasts that turn near-wild every November. So of course, the race is held at the beach on November first.
People are smart that way.

A Lesson in Worldbuilding

In a few months, I’ll be doing a series of World Blips on magic systems (after a rather important announcement in July). This book, however, gives me an excellent opportunity to showcase a kind of magic that is a little at odds with my general belief that fiction should be close to reality.

Reality can be explained. Whether it’s gravity or magnetism or instinct or neural patterns or social-biological interaction, everything can be explained.
In fiction, we need to be able to explain things. To a certain extent, of course. Your magic system can’t be explained fully because it’s… well, magic. It’s supposed to create a certain amount of wonderment in your reader.

The Scorpio Races has a form of magic. It’s obvious from the start that these horses (which naturally live in the water but can also survive on land) are not natural. They’re magical, mythical beasts that feast on the flesh of anything and are drawn to the sea. They can even capture their riders in this magic, in some cases.
How is this explained?
It’s not.

We don’t learn why the water horses come on shore only on this island. We don’t learn why the humans started this custom of the Scorpio Races. No one attempts to explain how the water horses live on land and in the sea. We don’t get to understand why iron affects the horses and copper doesn’t.

And that’s okay.
These magical creatures – these awe-inspiring, fearsome creatures – are treated as completely natural.
The characters act as if the water horses “always have been, just like gravity”. People don’t stop to explain gravity, so why stop to explain water horses?

It’s such an interesting idea. I had (and still have) so many questions about these horses. Where do they come from? Where in the ocean do they live? Why does iron affect these animals? What sort of instinct drives these horses to come on shore? Why does a November sea drive them more crazy than any other kind of sea?

I don’t know the answers. And I never will.

… Then… why do I really like this book?

It teaches me that it’s okay to not know all the answers.
I learn to be content. Much like “gravity is the attraction between two objects” doesn’t really explain what in the world gravity is, telling me that a November sea is the most dangerous kind when around water horses doesn’t explain why.
However, I can still accept it.
You’ve brought me into a world where water horses are normal. Everything about them is “normal”. Even though they’re different from other horses, they’re still “natural”.
I am brought into a world and made to accept it, therefore I can enjoy it.

It reminds me of a technique used in theatre. When putting on a production, you need to give your audience immediate hints about what you will and will not do.
Will your play break the fourth wall? Will characters speak directly to the audience? If so, it needs to be introduced in the first moments of the play.
Will the set change behind the scene? Will the stagehands come and go without black-outs? Introduce it early.
Will people be used to portray animals or clocks or lampstands or doorknockers? Introduce it early.

The same idea – introduce it early – can be applied to writing. And Maggie Stiefvater carries it off excellently. The very first thing you learn when you read the book, on the very first page of the prologue, is this idea that water horses are dangerous.
People die during the Scorpio Races.
The November sea is dangerous.
Water horses are dangerous.
People are stupid and ride water horses.

All on the first page or two.
She introduced the inexplicable early. Even though she never explained all of the magic, she gave it to us so early and gave it to us so matter-of-factly that we begin to stop caring that it’s not explained.
We’re content with how awesome it is.

The Thing about Characters

The plot of this book is character-driven. If it weren’t for the conflicts between Puck and her siblings, there would be no reason for her to be a character in the book at all. If she wasn’t stubborn (and slightly dense, at times), the plot would unravel quickly.

If Sean hadn’t won the races before, his situation would be different. He’d probably be dead.

I’m not always a fan of character-driven books. Not because I don’t like them but because I love plots. I love the intricacies and balance of plot arcs and plot twists. When a book uses them in tasteful and artful ways, it makes me happy.
This book isn’t so focused on those sorts of things.

Instead, it teaches me to care for these characters. Within the first two chapters, I already care for the two main characters. They’re so interesting and so relatable. Empathy flows from reader to page and back again.

That’s the only way a character-driven book works. If there is no empathy flow, there is no reason to read.
If you’re a wordsmith, if you’re a character writer, then this book is an excellent example for you. Write your characters to be this relatable.
If you’re a storyteller, if you’re a plot writer, then I encourage you to read this book. Try it. Learn how to carry stories in different ways. Expand your horizons. Trust me, it’s worth it.

And readers?
Read this book.

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